Italian Institution: Chef's Small Menu Offers Big Rewards

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Chef's Restaurant
291 Seneca St., Buffalo, NY 14204
Web: Chef's Restaurant
Phone: 716.856.9187
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"There's a 'seen one, seen 'em all' presumption with Buffalo's numerous Italian restaurants, and then there are places that defy the stereotypes. Chef's is one of the standouts."

Buffalo has its fair share of old restaurants, but ones that are classics in the best sense of that word are few and far between. Chef's is, without question, a bona-fide classic. Even though Western New Yorkers can choose from hundreds of Italian dining options, Chef's has somehow managed to pack customers into its Seneca Street location for over 85 years, sometimes even lining people up outside in the winter. Inside, you'll find a homey but well-maintained place decorated with numerous photos of athletes, celebrities, and politicians holding jars of Chef's tomato sauce; somehow, though the place isn't fancy, both the menu and the servers seem to be conveying a subtle message: we keep it simple so that everything we do is good.

What that means for patrons is a list of relatively few choices, served in generous portions at reasonable prices, and with strong, good flavors. Want a soup? Only Minestrone ($2.75/$3.75) is available every day, with four other soups served on rotation based on the day of the week. There's also an enticing rotating daily specials menu, which adds up to four additional options to the standard menu depending on which day you're there. If calamari linguini appeals to you, come back on Friday; Braciole's served only on Wednesday. The barely three-page regular menu can be summed up in a sentence: clusters of veal dishes, chicken dishes, and pasta dishes, plus eight appetizers, eight salads, two sandwiches, and some desserts. Our group of three didn't make an attempt to sample the whole of the menu - we'll save deeper tasting and our rating for a second visit - but instead ordered what looked interesting to us. And we enjoyed every bit of it.

From the brief appetizers list, which included mostly fried items such as Mozzarella Sticks, Calamari Rings, Fried Ravioli, and Onion Rings, we picked the Sweet Palermo Peppers ($7.25), which were substantially unlike the typically spicy Hungarian stuffed peppers served at other restaurants. These were larger, like small socks in circumference, each loaded up with slices of pepperoni and salami, a core of cheese, and bits of sausage. Some bites were mostly vegetarian, with the mild rather than sweet peppers and mozzarella forming the bulk of the flavor, while others were balanced with tasty thin-sliced meats. Off to the side was a cup of red sauce that we would have sworn was vodka-laced; it wasn't in any way needed to add flavor to the peppers, but came in handy as a nice dunking sauce for the loaf of soft, wide-bodied Italian bread that was included with the meal.

Two of us ordered the aforementioned Minestrone Soup, finding that both the cup and the bowl sizes were larger than normal; the "cup" was more like a bowl, and the "bowl" was a big one. Between the rich tomato broth, the noodles, and vegetables, it would have been hard to go wrong with the smaller portion, and there certainly wasn't anything to complain about in the more generous bowl. By comparison, the salad included with one of our entrees was pretty plain - standard lettuce, sliced carrots, tomato, and a lemon slice, plus a dressing of our choice. Like the bread, it wasn't fancy, but it was entirely fresh, and broke up what would otherwise have been an entirely heavy meal.

All three of the entrees we chose were both big and impressive, despite efforts and expectations to the contrary. One of us ordered the Eggplant Parmesan with Spaghetti ($9/small, $10.25/large), which was more than enough for one person despite the fact that we picked the "small" version. Huge chunks of fresh eggplant were topped with Chef's homemade tomato sauce and a nice layer of slightly browned cheese, then placed alongside a
half-sized portion of pasta. Another person ordered the Veal Steak with Sauteed Mushrooms ($17.25), expecting a typically small portion of meat, a lot of mushrooms, and a fairly plain preparation. What arrived was a very large plate with a massive piece of breaded veal, covered in a generous portion of big mushrooms and thick, butter and veal stock sauce. The third of our entrees was a special - the Veal Sciortino ($16), which placed the Eggplant Parmesan atop the Veal Steak, all underneath both the sauce and the cheese. This entree included both the aforementioned salad and a side of spaghetti, served on a separate plate with plenty of sauce.

Most of the time, we deal with entrees individually, but the overlap in these dishes turned out to be significant - as the menu indicates, there's a lot of similarity from item to item here. Both dishes with veal were truly very good, with the Veal Steak's copious brown sauce almost light-tasting relative to the big, heavy piece of meat, finished in its entirety; the pieces of fried eggplant in both of those dishes were also essentially perfect, cooked properly despite their thickness to avoid sogginess or internal under-preparation. Between these dishes, we had the opportunity to enjoy plenty of Chef's plain red sauce, an obviously fresh, slightly sweet and tangy tomato sauce, as well as its "famous meat sauce," which adds finely ground meat to the standard version. We liked both of the sauces enough that we actually ate our way through the sides of spaghetti, which we'd normally skip. Two of us added big Meatballs ($2) to the spaghetti dishes, which weren't special, but tasted good nonetheless.

That was a mistake for only one reason: it left us too little room for dessert. When a tray came out from the kitchen decked with Cheesecake, Tiramisu, other cake slices and Cannoli, the best we could muster was a collective agreement to split one Cannoli ($3.75) three ways. According to our server, who was consistently friendly and prompt, Chef's buys the shells and makes the filling itself. Though we weren't blown away by the end product, we liked it. There was something intriguing and hard to place about the flavor of the ricotta filling - one of us tasted vanilla, almond, and orange, another amaretto - while the slightly coarse texture recalled old fashioned cannolis, the likes of which we haven't found elsewhere locally in some time.

As we mentioned in our review of Luigi's, there's surely a "seen one, seen 'em all" presumption with certain types of overly numerous Buffalo restaurants - pizzerias and Italian places among them - and then there are places that defy the stereotypes. Chef's is one of the standouts, offering uncommonly good food that doesn't necessary surprise in any way, but so thoroughly satisfies that even jaded diners would have to attest to the quality. There may be dozens of more convenient Italian options nearby, but we're actively looking forward to returning to Chef's, and we'll update this article with a rating when we've done so.

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